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Disaster film has scientists laughing


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Disaster film has scientists laughing

By Sandi Doughton

Seattle Times staff reporter

Slouched in their seats and munching popcorn, a group of climate scientists from the University of Washington pronounced their verdict on the Hollywood blockbuster "The Day After Tomorrow" with giggles and guffaws.

When star Dennis Quaid, playing a hunky paleoclimatologist, solemnly warns that a massive storm unleashed by global warming is going to plunge the Northern Hemisphere into a new Ice Age — within days! — the real experts nudge each other and snicker.

When helicopters freeze midair and the Atlantic Ocean swamps Manhattan, peals of laughter erupt.

And this from people who firmly believe the movie's underlying contention is true: That climate change is real and will alter the face of the planet.

"If it raises awareness of the issue, I guess it's a good thing," climatologist David Battisti said, searching for a broader meaning after the lights came up on the advance screening Wednesday.

Then he chuckled. "It's so absurd, I don't think anybody will take it seriously."

There is a "small kernel" of scientific truth in the movie's plot, which blames melting polar ice caps for disrupting ocean currents that warm the northern latitudes, said Mike Wallace, director of the UW's Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean.

But that kernel is wildly distorted in a movie that depicts simultaneous tornadoes in Los Angeles, football-sized hail in Tokyo and snowstorms in New Delhi, he said.

Of course, moviegoers don't expect realism in a $125 million, special-effects extravaganza from director Roland Emmerich, whose previous story lines featured an alien invasion in "Independence Day" and a giant mutant lizard in the remake of "Godzilla."

What is surprising is the political heft the movie has acquired even before today's official opening.

Environmentalists and liberal activists have joined forces with former Vice President Al Gore to capitalize on the film and use it as a platform to criticize President Bush for resisting controls on greenhouse gas emissions.

This weekend, volunteers across the country will pass out leaflets at theaters where the movie is premiering.

"We all agree the movie is fictional, but it opens the door to talk about the serious subject of climate change and how it's already affecting us," said Seattle organizer Lisa Maschmeier.

Fearful that images of New York City encased in ice might nudge public opinion toward stronger environmental regulation, conservative and business groups have launched a counter-offensive.

For them, the worst-case scenario is approval of a bill to cap carbon-dioxide emissions that was defeated in the Senate by eight votes last fall. Co-sponsor John McCain, R-Ariz., told the Environment and Energy Daily he hopes the movie will provide needed momentum to pass the measure, which is similar to the international Kyoto accords the Bush administration spurned.

"We're trying to let people know — in a tongue-in-cheek way — that what the environmental left is pursuing is very dangerous from a job and economics perspective," said Karen Kerrigan, co-chair of the United for Jobs Coalition. The group is running a newspaper ad called "The Day After Kyoto" that parodies the movie with a picture of an unemployment line and a litany of economic losses that pollution controls could trigger.

And Emmerich, who makes no secret of his disdain for the Bush administration, gives the movie an unabashedly leftward spin. His characters include a weak president dominated by a vice president who sneers at scientists' warnings — and is a dead ringer for Vice President Dick Cheney.

Any scientific resemblance to the truth resides in a theory, first proposed 17 years ago, that global warming could shut down the so-called conveyer belt ocean currents that transport heat and salinity around the globe and help moderate the climate across much of Europe.

Ice core studies suggest that an outpouring of freshwater from melting glaciers 15,000 years ago might have knocked out the conveyor belt, leading to an "abrupt" change back to a frigid climate — that is, over the course of decades or a century.

There's some evidence that a similar process may be going on now, as higher temperatures in the Arctic are sending more melt water into the ocean and increasing precipitation, Wallace said.

A 2002 report from the National Academy of Sciences cautioned that unexpected climate shifts were possible, and a Pentagon report issued this year went further, predicting that the most extreme possible changes could lead to droughts, forest fires, blizzards and regional wars over dwindling resources.

But most scientists point out that the amount of freshwater going into the ocean today is puny compared to events in the historic record. Other studies, including some by Battisti, suggest that changes in the conveyor belt probably wouldn't trigger the kind of cooling previously thought.

"Nobody thinks this scenario in the movie is going to happen," he said.

Which doesn't mean global climate won't change dramatically, the scientists say — just that it will happen gradually, and not necessarily in ways depicted in the movie.

But could a mere movie really move the meter of public opinion enough to affect the future?

Not a movie this farcical, Battisti predicts.

Kerrigan agrees, but says she can't quite forget The China Syndrome. The 1979 dramatization of a nuclear power plant accident was released shortly before the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor. Since then, the United States hasn't approved a single new nuclear power plant.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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